It’s like being in a bubble

It’s so easy to forget here, that there is anything outside of this village – it’s such an immersive experience. No wonder so many people extend their stay, or just stay for years and years. Time moves at a different pace here too. The last two months have flashed by… it kind of feels like I’ve been here forever, but also that I’ve just arrived. Sometimes I can’t believe how much has happened in this short time, but days also seem to fly by before I have a chance to blink, and I add more and more things to my to-do list each day.


After my quiet first month in Huay Pakoot, the last few weeks have been a mixture of work hard/play hard. With weddings, new year festivals, elephant birthdays, a visit from our regional director, training of new staff, sunrise/sunset hikes, a weekend trip to a hippie paradise, and of course all the extra manager duties… It’s been full on to say the least. Not really sure where to start, but I’ll try.


Our lovely managers Anna and Max left a month ago and since then Myles and I have been taking on the extra duties and leading the hub. In the meantime we’ve been on a hiring spree of staff – three new girls have started (two were previously interns) and we have another starting next week. A lot more girls on the team than we were used to, but it’s kind of nice talking about girl stuff once in a while. For Anna and Max’s leaving do, we had a huge night in Chiang Mai involving a fancy hotel with a pool, tapas and cocktails, and a rooftop karaoke bar, as well as a group massage session the next day.


The next week was straight into manager duties. Emails take up a lot of time! I think me and Myles both felt a bit lost the first couple of days but we quickly figured out a routine and everything fell into place. I still look forward to staff meetings on Wednesday — they’re a mixture of productive and hilarious, which is something that is rare to find in a work-related meeting! Although I have a lot of admin to do, I’m also surprised at how little this feels like work. It’s such a relaxed atmosphere and there are always people to chat to or events going on which break up the day. I’ve never worked somewhere like this before and it’s a joy every single day; especially when you are working on a project that you believe so strongly about. Myles is on-par with Samson (who I worked with in Malawi) as the best work partner I’ve ever had.


A couple of days after Anna and Max left, regional director Molly visited us, to train new staff Charlotte, Caly and Ali, and to train me and Myles a little as well. It was a relief to have her here especially as she was impressed with how the project was going and how the staff team were all getting on really well. That weekend we had Dee’s wedding. Dee (as well as Don) are two members of our team, employed as National Scholars and community liasons. They are local to the village but also speak Thai and English, which makes them so useful when bridging the gap between GVI and the village – communications are so much easier when you have a translator! So when we heard Dee was getting married to a girl who lives in nearby Mae Chaem, of course there was going to be a big event for it. Most of the village turned up to his house, as well as lots of external people, to eat loads of food and hang out together. Good chance to practice Pakinyaw and socialize with some new people.


The next week was very short as all volunteers wanted to leave for Songkran on Thursday morning! What a privilege to have been around to experience this festival. Songkran is the Thai new year and everywhere in the country transforms into a massive water fight for an entire week — no one is safe. Chiang Mai is apparently the best place to be, so that’s where we all headed (stupidly in an open transport called a songthaew). The closer we got to Chiang Mai, the more we got soaked by giggling men, women and children carrying buckets full of water and standing at the side of the road. I think Songkran is up there as one of the best weekends of my life – everyone was in good spirits, running around with huge water guns (me and the boys got the biggest ones we could find), completely drenched, music playing and chaos all over the streets. There is a canal that runs all around Chiang Mai so it was easy to refill water weapons. I hope I’m around for it next year too! I was not ready to stop the celebrations, so when we got back to the village on Monday we had another water fight with the village kids. They showed us no mercy… water in face and eyes!


The following weekend we visited Pai, which is 4 hours away from our village. I wasn’t overwhelmed by the town, but it was in a pretty area — very similar to where we live! We visited a really cool cave nearby, full of bats and swifts, and went on a bamboo raft through the cave’s river, where we were lucky enough to see huge fish including catfish. You can imagine that being on a cave tour with a bunch of conservationists/biologists turned into a very dorky experience – I loved it. We also watched the sunset over the hills, whilst sitting in Pai Canyon. It looked just like home (Huay Pakoot). We ate a lot of good food, drank some beers, and generally enjoyed chilling out. It was such a relief to go back to the village though – we are all keen for some quiet weekends after the last few eventful ones.


There’s been loads of project stuff going on too. I try and get onto an elephant hike every week, and Ali and I led our first ones last week, seeing Lulu and Dee Dee (the babies). I’m learning loads about the nature here, from just hanging out with the other staff or going on biodiversity hikes. School is still out, so I’ve been trying to rewrite curriculums before that starts up, and while the kids are off school we’ve been going on outings with them to the river to swim/catch tadpoles (apparently they taste good!). I’m getting better at jogging up and down the hills, and always see some cool things on my run – beautiful blue birds called Indian Rollers, and sometimes even elephants. There have been a few elephant events in the village – geyjews (blessings) and more recently an elephant celebration where all the elephants that have been reintroduced to the forest come together in a reunion and eat loads of fruit. It was so cool to see them all together, and I could really notice the differences between them – each one definitely has their own characteristics and distinguishing features.


I’m doing evening English classes with some of the villagers Jaree and Darawan – her daughter Anchan joins too (she looks like Dora the Explorer). It’s always loads of fun and we spend our time giggling, it’s been a great way to practice the language too – they teach me while I teach them! I’m constantly overwhelmed by the loveliness of the people here; they are all so laid back and willing to help. Still determined to learn Pakinyaw, especially as it is pretty simple when compared to other languages; then I can communicate with the villagers here even more, and build up some good relationships.


I’ll try and add some photos to this when I get the chance. In the meantime, you can look on GVI Chiang Mai facebook page to see what we’ve all been up to! There’s loads more to write but that will have to wait for the next blog.


On another note, a video showing our project work here in Huay Pakoot has been shortlisted for Innovative Student Video. Take some time to watch the short video, it shows the elephants and village! If you like it, please vote 🙂



Another update from Zomba, Malawi – the rains have begun

The rains have come to Zomba. I’ve noticed a pattern; over a few days it starts to get very very hot and humid, almost unbearably so. This continues to escalate until you start looking up at the sky, praying the rain is on its way. After one particularly hot day, you hear rumblings in the distance. That night, the rains start. Not much warning; one moment there’s just a trickle, and the next it is a torrential downpour, and good luck to you if you happen to be outside! The thing I notice most is that smell of fresh rain. It’s perfect and refreshing. Then the flying bugs arrive in their hundreds – climbing through the windows, climbing up the walls, they disappear as quickly as they arrive but leave bits of wings all over the floor, chairs and counters. Hopeless things… they seem confused and die everywhere – drowning in the sink, burnt by the candle. Apparently if you eat them, you will go deaf.

The rain continues for the following day, which makes a great excuse to stay indoors under a blanket. You go to sleep that night and wake up to a brilliant blue sky, not a cloud in sight. The rain has cooled the air and eliminated the hot dust. You feel reborn. And then the cycle starts again…..

These are the first rains of the season; I hear that over time, it will be raining all day every day. I hope that isn’t soon – most of our activities happen outside!

I’m still loving all the fruits here. Pineapple season has begun and there are even peaches around now. Every time I go into town I wonder what fruit I will find next. I’ve never lived somewhere with so much variety.


These days I enjoy just spending time at home, sitting on the porch, hanging out with my baby sister Mulungi, and the rest of the family. They are a really sweet family – I love how accommodating they are, how their friends and family just pop in and out, sometimes staying a few days or a few months… Mulungi is 7 months old now and despite the fact I’ve been living there for most of her life, she is still constantly surprised to see me, like who is this strange white girl?! We are eagerly waiting for her to start crawling. Blackouts have become very common here recently, so most evenings we are sat in the dark with a candle.


The best mornings are the ones I go jogging in the hills. Fuelled by a banana, I run for about 50 minutes and come back to a cold shower and a cup of tea before work. It’s the best way to destress. Project work has been going slow – there’s certain issues between ICS and our partner organisation, which need to be sorted out, so for the moment we have no budget. We’re doing what we can, but it means a lot of extra work for me and Samson, and it involves people like the drama groups being willing to do things without necessarily being paid. To be honest, the drama groups are the best part of our project… full of enthusiasm, and always ready to help, they are our friends. We’ve provided them with a lot of opportunities by being here, to perform in schools and communities – I hope it helps them to get some awesome work in the future. I know they are very grateful to us for everything we’ve done to them, and we are grateful to them as well. Funny that drama is not even a part of our project, yet I’d rather focus on doing things that are making a real difference here rather than worrying so much about just hitting targets! Their dramas always come with an important message which is tailored to the community or school we are visiting, and the response we get is overwhelmingly positive.


I’ve enjoyed my time here, but now it’s so close to the end, I’m looking forward to going home. It’s been hard and stressful but also rewarding and at times I’ve had so much of a laugh, and I’m glad I’ve had this experience… but 6 months is a long time to be in one place. I miss my friends and family and I can’t wait for Christmas! I’m starting to think about the next steps, and Central America is something that keeps coming into my mind, but I’m not making any definite decisions until I get home. It might be that now is the time I should stick around the UK for a bit, rather than trying to rush off again. I guess I’ll just work out how I feel when I’m home.


See you all soon! Tionana.

A couple of weeks of indulgence, then back to work

Long time no writings…. The reason being, I’ve been either hardcore relaxing or hardcore working. Our week in Lilongwe was really great. Saying this, Lilongwe is probably the worst capital city I’ve been in; there’s literally nothing interesting to do. But just to be with the other team leaders, all living together in the office, was good enough. And to add on that, Lilongwe does have some very nice restaurants, and we had been given a large allowance for food of which we had to provide receipts… so it was a perfect excuse to go on a restaurant tour. Korean, Chinese, Italian, Persian… the list goes on. I felt very rested and satisfied by the time we were going back to our host communities.

It was pretty cool being back in Zomba even without the volunteers – just to hang out with my host family, and catch up with Samson and some work stuff. I got back into exercising to try and shed some of the weight that came from eating very good food for a solid week. Unfortunately I had a bad experience the day before I was supposed to head back to Lilongwe to meet the volunteers; I was mugged and attacked whilst wandering around the Zomba hills. It left me feeling quite traumatised. It’s the first time something like that has ever happened to me, despite all the solo travelling I’ve done. For about a week after, I was freaked out at the thought of being by myself and was having flashbacks. I couldn’t sleep either. Travelling to Lilongwe the day after it happened, on public transport, with no phone, I found very difficult… and then having to meet the team, support them and be enthusiastic was also very hard. So it wasn’t great timing at all but after speaking to the office I decided it would be best for me to stay in Lilongwe for some days and rest/recover, whilst the team went ahead of me to Zomba with Samson for support. Then I wouldn’t have to worry about work for the time being and I could focus on feeling better.

If I hadn’t had enough bad luck, just before the volunteers were about to leave for Zomba I woke up with incredibly bad food poisoning. I blame Messa’s Lodge. I just felt so awful. Found in the morning that three other volunteers (two of mine!) were also very sick. Really not a nice thing to happen on their first few days in the country! That morning was super weird – I was in and out of consciousness, whilst being slightly aware that TLs and office staff were coming in and out.. some checking I was ok, some saying goodbye, some telling me I needed to get up to go to hospital. Eventually I was dragged to a nearby clinic and put on a drip. Made me feel a bit better. The volunteers who were sick couldn’t travel to their communities that day so we all ended up in the office. Adrian (team leader) also stayed behind to support me.

As we all slowly recovered from our hospital trip, it became really fun hanging out with the volunteers in the office. We took them out for Persian and Korean food, and just had a laugh generally. I was feeling better and mostly able to sleep again. After the volunteers left it was just Adrian and I for a while, and of course the office staff. We continued our tour of fancy restaurants, watching movies and resting. I learnt some coping techniques from a councillor. After a week I felt confident and stable enough to go back and start the project.

Obviously going back to Zomba brought back some memories but generally the feelings of weakness I had before had been replaced by feelings of strength and power. I had a nasty experience and I didn’t let it defeat me; I was still here carrying on. I felt really proud of myself. It definitely wasn’t just me though – I wouldn’t have been able to get through without the support of the other team leaders. All of them helped in different ways. I immediately went to hang out with the volunteers upon arrival. It felt so good to be with them again and they’re an awesome team.

It’s been nearly two weeks now since I got back, so I missed the first week of project (mainly training) and have had to hit the ground running. Since being back the volunteers have been involved in life skills sessions in schools, investigating a community, preparing for parenting sessions, starting our theatre for development, and they’ve also managed to find out some confidential cases of individuals which have been reported to YONECO so the children involved can be helped. I’m really proud of them. We’ve even had a cheeky visit to the botanical gardens.

Zomba is hot hot hot. It’s exhausting. A few days ago however we had cold, cloud and rain and now it seems to have cooled a little, which is a relief. The summer season has brought plentiful fruits… the strawberries and oranges are going out of season, but the lychees, mangoes, papaya and watermelon are coming in, and the South African apples are getting redder. My host family have started to make fresh fruit smoothies as another business (they are busy people!). I’m getting up early and going jogging in the hills before work and before the sun becomes too strong.

So basically, everything is falling back into place. Work is always going to be tiring and it’s always gonna be a struggle, but I have it under control; for now at least! It’s less than 7 weeks now until our projects finish and I’ll be making my way home for Christmas. I’m really really excited to be home now it’s not so long away.

Guys, don’t worry, I’ve got this.

Ooh la la. It’s funny how it takes so long to find your feet sometimes, and then all of a sudden everything just clicks. I feel like I have this all under control finally. Of course there are still dramas and things that go wrong basically every day that have to be solved, but I can handle it, and it’s ticking along. Work relationships have improved drastically – me and my counterpart Samson have reached an understanding of each other, and despite being very different we stay honest and open with each other, build off each others’ strengths and try and mitigate each other’s weaknesses. I am learning to be more relaxed and flexible about things whilst I think the YONECO guys are also starting to understand the way I operate and that I don’t like to be messed around.

Something I didn’t anticipate here was that things would be a struggle because of my gender. Perhaps I should have thought about it; after all, the way women are viewed here is not great, as I experienced last time I was here! But in the sector I’m working in, I didn’t think it would be a problem. And most people are fine and listen to me, for sure. But there are a few who just don’t take me seriously, interrupt me or tell me I’m wrong when I know I’m not, who don’t appreciate the fact that I am assertive and organised and in a position of leadership. It’s very frustrating when my leadership behaviour is seen as something amusing, or annoying, or even “cute” (cue me being very angry) rather than, like, the only way anything is gonna get done in this place!

Week 3 has been successful, after a slow second week. We have finally started to do stuff on the ground; activities are beginning to get going, and our messages are getting through to people. The volunteers are so great at interacting with the young people and I really feel like the youths are listening and responding. It’s amazing to see. It makes me feel so emotional sometimes! I’ve had to leave the room to have a cry a couple of times, because it’s such a rewarding feeling and also because it’s just so nice to see how great the volunteers are doing. Some of them have really developed and blossomed since being here. Also I’m just super-emotional here all the time, kind of like a rollercoaster, but it’s good to be emotional.

We have been preparing our Theatre for Development sessions which Samson has experience in, so he’s been training some of the volunteers who are interested. It’s so much better than just contacting and booking some trained artists already, because when the volunteers actually are the trained artists, they can be actively involved on the ground, which is what they prefer. It’s also cheaper! We’ve also begun our sports tournament, using 8 under-17 football and netball teams from local schools, and playing SRHR-related warm up games. When we chat to them about SRHR and learn about their views, I can really see why all this awareness-raising is needed… some of their views are not healthy and/or are incorrect. Unfortunately, we’ve had two quarter final matches this week and in both of these, one team didn’t show up! This is a problem because people will hear about it and start to not take the games seriously, so I am a little worried about this coming week. Luckily we’ve managed to get the teams that showed up involved with the SRHR games and also playing a football game with them ourselves!

This week the volunteers finally got to run the sessions they had been preparing for the drop-in centres; life skills, art and dance sessions. They went so well and we had people begging for us to come back soon! We will do sessions every week if we have time. We also had a visit from the supervisors to check how we were doing, it was really nice to have a chat with them and ask loads of questions/rant about irritating things! Not that there are many irritating things any more… like I said, things are falling into place. We have had a few illnesses, hospital visits and also some group tensions, but nothing too serious so far… in general all the volunteers get on really well with each other.

It’s been a good weekend spending quality time with the volunteers, Thuliwe from the office, and my host family. We’ve even had a chance to try out some woodcarving after making friends with some of the guys at the market. Woodcarving is very famous here, so I’ll definitely pick up some souveniers. The volunteers loved the session.

Halfway through Week 4 now but I’ll talk more about that next time. In the meantime, internet really is too bad to upload photos onto this blog, so I’ll attach a few links so you can see some photos elsewhere: